Thar, one of the prettiest and sweetest-smelling flowers in Pakistan’s national bouquet, is dying. It is dying because those working under the banner of development are not open to reason, because the people of this unique region have been abandoned by their compatriots.

The case for protecting Thar and the people who have been living there for thousands of years can be presented in a few lines.

Thar is the only Hindu-majority area in Pakistan and any change in its demographic character will mean the state’s failure to fulfil its constitutional and humanitarian obligations to protect a minority community. As descendants of the original settlers on this land, the people of Thar are entitled to enjoy all the rights enumerated in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, especially their rights to ownership of land, to preservation of their culture, language, belief and historical monuments, and to have access to employment, health, education and social security.

Moreover, the people of Thar possess qualities for which they deserve the love and admiration of the entire Pakistani nation. They have preserved their great ancestors’ legacy of peaceful coexistence. They have saved many monuments of historical, religious and archaeological significance that form a rich part of Pakistan’s heritage. They put their seal on their loyalty to the state when some parts of their land were occupied by Indian forces. They themselves raise the resources needed to feed the thousands of birds that add colour to their arid landscape, and offer lessons in ways of loving animal life.

Above all, this is the only region in the country where people of different faiths interact with each other on an equal footing and jointly celebrate each other’s festivals. For keeping their doors closed to purveyors of communal discord alone, the people of Thar have fortified their right to live as they wish.

The development wallahs are likely to declare that they know all about the Thar people’s rights and that everything is being done to protect them. But they are looking only at the good things they are doing for the people of Thar. Their brief might be impressive, but they are ignoring the cost to the Tharis, that is absolutely prohibitive.

Threats to Thar

The first requirement of finding a just and equitable solution to the problem is to have a decent and civilised discussion on the issues that the people of Thar have raised. The development projects have, after all, been drawn up by persons who cannot claim to be infallible. They should be open to debate. By dismissing their critics as a mafia they only betray the poverty of their argument.

The issues in debate, or the threats to Thar and its people, stem from the work going on in connection with the Thar coal energy project. The country’s civil society has serious reservations about this project and its right to a hearing cannot be denied. Some of these concerns were expressed at a very useful meeting organised by the National Commission for Human Rights in Karachi last week. The commission has been watching Thar for more than a year and had been induced to hold the Karachi meeting by media reports of “forced conversions and increased influence of extremists’ groups in the area”, complaints of “violation of local community rights by coal-mining companies”, and protests against the Gorano dam.

Civil society is no longer interested in debating the rationale for the Thar coal project. That part of the story has been overtaken by events. But it does challenge the definition of development that bypasses the dictates of human development. At the moment, we are concerned with two parallel consequences of the project.

The first line of concern proceeds from the impact of the project area of 9,000 square kilometres, out of the total Thar area of 19,000 sq km. As a result of digging to reach the proper water level, trillions of tons of soil will be thrown up and create mountains of dead earth that will affect the area’s ecology. The extent of environmental hazards the project will cause was ably demonstrated by advocate Rafay Alam at the Karachi meeting, One wishes somebody was listening. Then Sono Khangharani, whose consistent defence of his people’s rights over several decades commands respect, explained the plight of the people of 52 villages who have been displaced. And that is a serious humanitarian crisis.

Loss of identity

Some of these concerns have no doubt been partly addressed and there have been complaints of the young Tharis’ failure to benefit from schemes of training for alternative jobs. But this is due to the difficulties in replacing a pastoral style of living with the nine-to-five work discipline. The young Tharis could have performed better if they had been initiated into the social change process earlier.

The second, and perhaps more important, issue is what Arif Hasan, who knows Thar better than anyone – having been involved in the region’s uplift for about 40 years – calls the absence of a vision for the people living on the remaining 10,000 sq km of land. The challenges facing them are really enormous.

There is not enough grazing land for the 3.5 million animals of the area. Speculators and land grabbers are depriving the locals of their land. Misguided religious zealots are offering people dreams of prosperity if they convert to Islam, which is totally contrary to Islamic principles. Nobody knows what the effect of a large influx into Thar of alien people will be on the culture, language, arts and crafts of the area. All one can say is that the people might lose their identity.

All this could have been avoided. The situation can still be salvaged; you can have electricity and you can generate revenue from the desert if the authorities are prepared to sit with civil society representatives and work out a plan to save Thar. The task is not impossible.

This article first appeared on Dawn